Got some more reading done so let's discuss:
First up: Priest of Lies by Peter McLean. This is the follow-up to last year's excellent Priest of Bones. You've got Tomas Piety and his fellow veterans, back from the war and restoring the his family's criminal empire in their hometown. Along the way, Tomas got married to a royal spy to establish him as "respectable" and give him another set of tools to help thwart foreign agents from taking over the place.
In this book, newly en-nobled Tomas is called away to the royal capital to make a splash on society and get the once over from his wife's boss. Of course, if he's at the capital, he's not minding the store and when he finally gets back home, his criminal empire is only just hanging on and the city government is shot through with foreign agents and perhaps it's time to get back to some skull-cracking.
The book is pretty good. It's definitely a "bridge" book for what is at least a trilogy. My biggest nit with the whole book is that Tomas complains about putting on airs like a noble. Which is fine, but one thing that adds to his misery is any number of small social faux pas he commits because he doesn't know any better. The problem is that his wife, Ailsa, is an accomplished field agent and a minor noble to boot -- but she never sits Tomas down and walks him through what he needs to know to get through various social situations. Teaching your streetwise gang leader some high society manners and graces before thowing him the wolves seems like a no-brainer.
Even so, the book motors along well, the dialog is crisp, there's some nice world-building, and it's generally an absorbing read. Definitely going to get the next book in the series.
Next up, another book of dystopian fiction, but this one is...on a more positive bent? The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele is a book in the vein of Station Eleven where the world has fallen apart, but life goes on and happiness can be found even here. In this book, climate change, super-bugs, technological failures, and general political paralysis has more or less put everyone on their butts. Carson, a former school principal living in the failing husk of New York decides to pack up his stuff and walk across the country to Seattle where he hopes to find Beatrix, a woman he'd started a long-distance romance with back before things fell apart. Handing a letter for Beatrix to the local bike messenger, he sets off, following road and rails across the country. Beatrix, meanwhile, has returned to Seattle after the whole concept of fair trade goods no longer matters. Beatrix is torn between heading north and finding her housemates who've moved to a farm, or sticking around and seeing what she can do for the people living in the area.
This is a pretty low-key book. You hear a lot about this cult whose leader is offering a better life if people make the trek to Wyoming and join him. And they do run into this preacher, but it's a thread that doesn't really go anywhere. More interesting are the people Carson meets along the way and Beatrix's efforts to rebuild her local community. I feel like it's avoiding a *lot* of potentially ugly scenarios, but it's still nice to read dystopian fiction that has a bit of hope and optimism. Definitely worth checking out.
For some reason, I've been doing a few short story/novella length books this month. This kicked off with The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. Vasethe is a man looking for someone who's gone missing. To find her, he travels to the ends of the Earth and meets with the Border Keeper, an old woman who monitors the boundary between the world and the 999 demon realms of Mkalis. With a little time and effort, Vasethe wins her over and the two enter the demon realms to track down Vasethe's missing person.
This is fantastic and I hope it's up for an award later this year. It's just a silk-smooth piece of storytelling. The plot moves forward but has a surprising amount of subtlety. I really liked it. Well worth checking out for an evening's entertainment.
After that, a little fantasy in the Jack Vance vein. A God in Chains by Matthew Hughes isn't set in Mr. Vance's Dying Earth, but perhaps an eon earlier. The world is old and run down and garrulous characters wander the land getting into scrapes and having adventures. Farouche, comes to on a vast plain, unable to recall his name or his past. He joins up with a passing caravan as a guard. He handily fends off an ambush and impresses his boss. At their next destination, Farouche takes on other jobs and tries to work out who he used to be.
The writing is very stylistically similar to Vance's Dying Earth stories (though the protagonists are usually a bit more heroic). So if that's something you've enjoyed in the past, you might enjoy Hughes's stuff as well. If you haven't read any of the Dying Earth books -- go do that first, then look into these.
A couple more shorts. First up: A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch. So if you know Mr. Lynch's other books, you've probably got a good idea of what to expect. Amarelle Parathis, the Duchess Unseen and her crew have landed in Theradane, a city state run by a parliament of wizards who are...mostly fighting each other. The Duchess and her crew are here because if you give the wizards a big bag of gold and promise to be very good, they'll grant you citizenship and you're safe from whatever crimes you're wanted for elsewhere. So they're taking it easy when a wiz-war interrupts their card game and the Duchess makes some unwise comments to one of the feuding wizards. Now, she and her crew of rogues have to steal a city street to make one wizard happy and another one cry.
It's a quick, zippy read with all of the Lynchian goodness you expect. Fun characters, snappy patter, and a slick criminal caper all in a neat little package.
Finally we round out with The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain. In the near future, a powerful Djinn named Melek is freed from his mountain tomb and he sets out to pick up where he left off. On his way down he encounters an angry old man who suggests that if Melek is looking for a challenge, he should come to Kathmandu and face off against Karma, the AI that runs the city and keeps it alive.
Now, Karma is no evil AI, it just works to keep people safe and happy. It offers social credits to people who do good/valuable work for the community and even if you do nothing (you're a "zero") you still get your basic needs more than adequately met. So how do you rebel against the ultimate benevolent dictator?
Meanwhile, Hamilcar Pande is a sort of unofficial Sheriff for Karma. Not that there's any crime per se, but Karma may have blind spots and to guard against that they have Hamilcar. The Sheriff has noticed that two people, who are invisible to Karma's sensors and have none of the cybernetic augmentations that (literally) make life possible. As he starts investigating he turns up something more serious and far less magical than a egotistical Djinn.
Again, another fun short story. I do really like the idea of a benevolent AI. It's pretty easy to write stories with a Skynet, but I think the more interesting ones come from societies where AI really does take care of you.
Anyway, that's what's crossed my kindle lately.